Hebrew media review

Netanyahu under fire

As PM prepares for Congress speech, he gets flak from ex-Mossad boss but finds support from US presidential contender Jeb Bush

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to voters from the Russian-speaking community, at a Likud Party conference in Tel Aviv, February 9, 2015. (Photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to voters from the Russian-speaking community, at a Likud Party conference in Tel Aviv, February 9, 2015. (Photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up for his trip to the United States for his much-anticipated speech before Congress, and the Israeli press devotes its weekend papers to whether or not he should be going in the first place. All the while, the announcement of the looming investigation into allegations of financial improprieties at the Prime Minister’s Residence makes waves in the Hebrew media as well. Coverage, as is routine now in the run-up to elections, seems frequently impacted by the papers’ respective political stances: Israel Hayom backs Netanyahu to the hilt; Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz want to see him gone.

With just four days to go before the prime minister takes center stage in Washington, Jeb Bush — 2016 GOP presidential hopeful and brother and son to former US presidents — comes to Netanyahu’s defense in Israel Hayom. The paper interviews the former Florida governor and translates the exchange into Hebrew. Bush dismisses the Obama administration for “attacking the prime minister,” saying Netanyahu has every right to come speak before Congress about the “inherent threat” posed by a bad deal with Iran.

Striking a presidential tone, Bush says that there’s uncertainty surrounding the relationship between the US and Israel, and not just about the Iranian issue. “Therefore it’s necessary to restore those [relations] and we will indeed restore them in two years’ time,” Bush tells the paper (according to a translation of his remarks into Hebrew). “But during these two years, we will feel that we’re in great danger.”

He says that Netanyahu’s speech is not a mistake, because “it will help Americans hear the voice of its strongest ally in the region concerning the deal and clarify the existential threat standing before it and what this means concerning the clear threat to the world.”

Yedioth Ahronoth, on the other hand, runs an interview with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan in which he condemns Netanyahu’s anticipated speech. The paper takes pains to assert that Dagan’s beef with the prime minister is not a personal one, and that he acknowledges the threat to Israeli national security posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

The former spy chief nonetheless says that “he who has caused the greatest strategic damage to Israel on the Iranian issue is the prime minister.”

Issuing unprecedented criticism of Netanyahu, Dagan says that prior to his retirement from the Mossad in 2011, the issue of a military strike against Iran came up during high-level discussions, but Israeli defense officials opposed it.

“By my estimation, Netanyahu didn’t decide on an operation because he didn’t want to assume responsibility. He didn’t want to go for a dramatic decision against heads of the defense establishment because he knew that at the end of the day responsibility would fall on him. I’ve never seen him take responsibility for something.”

“I’ve seen leaders who reached a decision and afterwards acknowledged, ‘we made a mistake,'” says Dagan, who was head of the Mossad under former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as well as Netanyahu. “Nobody’s immune from mistakes.”

“The difference between him and others is in taking responsibility,” Dagan tells the paper about Netanyahu. “He is strong on talk, not action.”

The lead story in Haaretz is Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision on Thursday to have the police only begin probing alleged financial improprieties at the Prime Minister’s Residence by Netanyahu and his wife after the March 17 elections. The paper reports that the decision was made after a lengthy meeting at the state prosecutor’s office, in which Justice Ministry officials examined evidence given by former residence custodian Menny Naftali and the material submitted to Weinstein’s office by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira.

Weinstein said that Naftali’s testimony raised suspicions of criminal actions that justify investigation, at the end of which it will be decided whether or not to open a criminal probe. He said, however, that the suspicions in question involve “acts whose seriousness is relatively not great,” the paper says. He also noted that Netanyahu himself was not suspected of abuse.

Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the decision to delay the investigation until after the elections was two-fold: first, because there was insufficient time to carry it out beforehand, and second, so that the probe into suspected improprieties couldn’t “be used as a battering ram” against the prime minister.

Israel Hayom downplays the attorney general’s decision to conduct a police probe into the suspected misconduct, and stresses in the lead to its coverage that Weinstein’s announcement noted multiple times that “the material gathered until now has no evidence which raises suspicion of the involvement of the prime minister himself in the alleged acts.”

Haaretz’s editorial takes a swing at Netanyahu, charging that he is “determined to act like a wrecking ball” on the strategically important relationship Israel enjoys with the United States. “His grip on power is shaky, and he’s acting like someone who has nothing to lose,” the paper writes.

“If Netanyahu were a responsible leader, he would never have gone so low as to engage in a frontal confrontation with the US president,” the paper says, arguing that such behavior “bolsters the need to elect a different prime minister.”

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